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Net rights advocates target spam

Civil liberties groups are gaining momentum in their fight against Netizens' enemy No. 1: spam.

    Civil liberties groups are gaining momentum in their fight against Netizens' enemy No. 1: spam.

    Today, the Center for Democracy and Technology held the third in a series of private forums on junk email. But that organization is not alone in its efforts.

    While individual antispam advocates--many of whom are network experts--use coersion, pressure, and publicity to rid the Net of unsolicited junk email, civil liberties organization, government bodies, and politicians increasingly are jumping onto the antispam bandwagon.

    For instance, Net civil liberties organizations Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Electronic Privacy Information Center are devoting resources to fighting spam.

    What they're finding is that while most Netizens find spam to be irritating, at the very least, there really is no simple way to get rid of it. In addition, as groups that seek to protect civil liberties, they have to consider the First Amendment rights of those who send spam. Some judges, however, have ruled in spam cases that spammers have no First Amendment rights to send junk email.

    But if spam doesn't go away tomorrow, it won't be for lack of trying. CDT, for instance, has held a series of meetings involving representatives from industry, government, technology, and civil liberties sectors. This summer, it also set up a Web site called the Junk Email Resource Page, meant to be something of a clearinghouse when it comes to answering questions about email, including the legality of specific pieces.

    The CDT has divided spam into three categories, the first of which is spam that is blatantly illegal, such as emails advertising pyramid schemes and fraud. That category is probably the easiest to deal with, at least in theory, because there already are laws forbidding fraud, no matter what the medium, said CDT staff attorney Deirdre Mulligan.

    Still, people need to actually report the alleged fraud for government to be able to act upon it, she added.

    The second category gets a little murkier. That is the area that the CDT is labeling "technology fraud." That area encompasses all the ways spammers steal technology or use technology to hide who they are, including the common practice of hijacking mail servers and spoofing message headers. That category might also be covered by existing technology.

    But the third category the CDT defines is the "everything else" category: junk email sent directly from a traceable place that involves simple advertising.

    That is the toughest one with which to deal. "It just happens to be gumming up the network, making many users crazy and certainly flooding many ISPs and overloading them," Mulligan said. "It raises privacy concerns. It raises enormous cost-shifting concerns."

    Junk emailers claim the courts have ruled that junk email is protected under the First Amendment. Nonetheless, there are sticky issues yet to be resolved.

    EPIC is looking into junk emailers' practice of collecting and disseminating personal information such as email addresses to see whether that violates the privacy rights of individuals, said David Banisar, staff counsel for EPIC.

    The EFF also is working on the issue on several levels--legal, technological, and legislative, said EFF's program director Stanton McCandlish.

    "There's no magic bullet," he noted. "This practice really threatens the entire viability of the medium. When people get so much junk mail, it's almost impossible to find real mail...That undermines a lot of faith in electronic commerce."

    As for the First Amendment issue raised by junk emailers: "That's complete bunk. Your right to swing your foot stops when you hit my face.

    "They're making everyone else pay for it. The First Amendment does not include a right to force other people to listen or force other people to pay for your speech."